A Well-Oiled Machine
Avenging her sister comes with a price willingly paid
I dreamt of the apple orchard, the one on my grandfather’s farm. I can smell the dewy air of those crisp fall mornings in the field. We would fill our baskets to the brim eventually but not before some requisite chasing and hiding. How exhilarating it had been to throw rotten apples like snowballs at each other, after climbing to the highest branches that would support the weight of a child!
It was a tradition in our large Eastern European family. All of the cousins would come together on the first weekend in October to collect apples for Grandpa’s alcoholic cider. It was like a huge holiday for us kids, bigger than Christmas.
The grandchildren would gather the apples while our parents worked in the distillery in the basement of the big farmhouse. The Harvest Festival was three weeks after and we worked to have hundreds of bottles available to sell there.
Suddenly, and only for a moment, my body jerked and was pushed sideways. My eyes opened and I struggled to keep them that way, but it was no use. I blacked into the past once again.
My happy reverie, now interrupted, focused on that car from that day. It slowed down and stopped for a few minutes beside the orchard. I smelled that distinctive thick exhaust, even now in my thoughts, as it polluted the early fog so many years ago. Those old communist-era cars were loud as well as dirty, but only I had been close enough to hear. As the smallest of the children, I could go up higher in the trees, giving me a vantage point to see the man with the gold tooth and the tattoos on his hand.
My thoughts momentarily took a small detour I was sure I could smell actual oil and exhaust. What was that sound? It was rhythmic and almost deafening. Pistons, perhaps? What else could it be?
I thought about the changes I had undergone after the gold-toothed man arrived in our small town. I remembered how I had seen him again at the festival. Every burgoning wrinkle on his overly friendly face and every thinning hair on his oblong head was etched in my memory. Because of him, I was no longer human.
I willed my subconscious to pay attention to what was happening. I had trained myself for these kinds of scenarios.
If I couldn't wake up fully, part of me might still be able to take in some sensory information. Strangely enough, by doing this, I could force my consciousness forward. I surmised it was because I was mostly a tool now after all, able to push my cold machine soul farther than a purely biological being might.
My eyes opened slowly and allowed them to adjust to the limited light I was surrounded by. Soon the blurriness was gone and I could tell I was in an engine room of some kind.
I could feel plastic zip ties around my wrists and ankles. My body was contorted in an uncomfortable position and my mobility was severely limited. The zip ties on my extremities must have been connected.
I was able to deduce that I was on a train. It was a slower moving, old-fashioned, diesel type; the kind they restored to transport tourists who were uninterested in reaching a destination at high speed.
As I looked around, I immediately spotted a sharp edge on the side of some metallic storage housing. What kind of low-level amateur underling had been assigned to detain me here? It was almost insulting.
The locomotive seemed to be on terrain that caused it to sway left and right at regular intervals. I took advantage of the next leftward swerve and propelled myself toward the box with as much effort as I could muster. It was enough. I cut through the first zip tie in a matter of minutes.
Like I said, amateurs.
I noticed a few errant zip ties scattered along the floor along with several empty syringes. They were sloppy as well. I felt inclined to believe my unrelenting assaults over the last 10 years had put a large dent in the pool of professional and disciplined henchmen. It made me happy to believe they'd been forced to hire goons.
I heard distant, scratchy voices nearby and found them to be coming from an old radio set up near the controls. They were speaking Russian, a language I was familiar with growing up in a recently independent, post-Soviet bloc country.
"How the hell is she awake? How much did you give her?"
In preparing myself for the life as a machine whose only purpose was to right the wrongs of my family, I regularly dosed myself on various substances to build up my tolerance. My efforts seemed to have paid off. Unless, of course, the newbie who'd left me tied up in a room where I could easily break open a zip tie had been as equally inept with narcotic dosaging.
My ears heard a subtle ticking sound and my eyes were drawn to a moving gear.
As I studied the engine controls, I saw that during the upgrade renovations, they'd created a computerized mechanism to operate the train remotely.
"What about the cargo?" I heard one of the voices say.
"Nevermind," was the reply. "We'll have to write it off as a loss."
"What will Yuti say?" An incredulous voice asked.
"He'll thank me for cutting our losses when he sees what we were dealing with."
The replying voice seemed to grant me a respect that I felt quite proud about, internally. I could feel the prosthetic enhancements on my face were intact. The dark-haired, androgynous disguise I was currently operating under matched my Romanian passport. It said I was Rana Ioveanu. Rana was my most-accomplished alter-ego.
I smiled at the big red light indicating a surveillance camera and imagined the man behind it acknowledging me and the creative body of work attributed to Rana with a resigned nod.
As I exited the engine car, I knew my suspicions about this particular mission were correct. The name 'Yuti' had been used. He was in charge of a large sector in one of bigger crime syndicates. It was the sector the man with the gold tooth and the tattoo on his hand had been a part of.
During the Harvest Festival that year, my sister Ana had gone missing. She'd been abducted, drugged, and taken into the most vile of criminal enterprises. The gold-toothed man had chosen her that day at the orchard and followed through three weeks later.
Ana was my world. In many ways, she was my twin, despite her being a year and a half older. We were thick as thieves and did everything together in unison. We had the same mannerisms and inflections, the same silly, little girl laugh. Ana and I were equal parts of a singular entity. We knew what the other was thinking and could have complete, intricate conversations with just facial expressions and eye movements.
Ana was good and kind and the part of me that had also been that way died when she was ripped away from us. In addition to the trauma of losing my beloved sister and the devasting effect it had on my family, the events that followed transformed us from a family of caring individuals into merely a network of moving parts. We functioned outwardly, but only as a means to an end.
My whole family was different. We could no longer experience joy and laughter. The most important emotions that make up human being were stripped from our souls. How would we ever move forward?
I thought about the townspeople back then, with their ostentatious offerings of sympathy. Mrs. Lavia had gone so far as to say out loud what I feel the others had implied with their strangely worded condolences about Ana's disappearance.
“At least you have a big family,” she told my mother. “Not like Morija Kosir, whose only daughter also ran away.”
“Ana didn’t run away!” my mother insisted.
Mrs. Lavia quietly backed off. She had only been repeating the narrative our corrupted police force had been spewing. It was a neat story that was far easier to digest than the truth. Perhaps, for a moment, she had considered the larger horror we were dealing with before falling back into a fake reality that was easier to process.
The police captain promoted a theory that our family was possibly unstable and slightly dysfunctional. He said Ana had probably left on her own to get away from such a big family where she had felt overlooked. He also blamed her leaving on movies and the now widespread access to Western magazines. He claimed they made young girls dissatisfied with small-town life and they left for the city.
It happened all the time, he told us rather casually. Young girls run away from their families seeking something more, something missing in their teenage lives, something promised by Western media. He gave numerous examples of teenagers, mostly female but males as well, who he'd made reports for. Some were found later, he remarked optimistically, enjoying an independent life elsewhere.
It was obvious he and his force had been paid off by the perpetrators to categorize all those missing women as ‘runaways’. It was a statistical impossibility to have had that many teenagers disappear on their own. But they steadfastly continued with the subterfuge that bought them luxuries previously unheard of before our country’s recent independence.
All of them had been paid by Yuti's people to keep a blind eye and to allow their insideous operations to continue.
From then on, I knew I would scorch the Earth to find my sister. My teen years were spent learning everything I could about human trafficking. I found out how women were drugged and transported. I learned the connections they had to the financial industry. And I also searched for ways that I could be a thorn in the side of these monsters.
I had been wildly successful, thanks especially to the assistance of my family, who also gravitated towards fields that might find Ana. I had siblings in law enforcement and information technology. Cousins worked in government and I had an aunt who unknowingly taught me creative things about disguise.
What I didn't realize is how much my pursuit would take on a life of its own. I began to enjoy exacting vengeance and quite frankly, I was good at it. I reveled in providing the violent comeuppane these kinds of monsters deserved. There was an understanding that I had become a monster as well, but I still slept well at night knowing that I was exacting justice that fully emotional humans were incapable of providing.
The engine room door wasn't even locked and I exited quickly. The following two railroad cars seemed to be empty. The third had a dead railroad employee, shot in the head. He had probably tried to call for help. There was a busted cell phone in the corner. It appeared to have been thrown against a wall and smashed with a determined foot stomp, presumably by the shooter.
As I searched through his uniform, I could see through the window that the train was traveling through a pass of high mountains. The topography indicated we were in Estonia and the train seemed to be heading east.
I found another cellphone hidden in a pocket of his uniform. It was easily unlocked with his thumbprint. I suspected this was a burner phone used to conduct an extraneous affair, given there were only two numbers in the contacts. The cache of photos in the gallery indicated it as well. I took it with me as I searched the other cars.
Some time before, I had been picked up in Latvia as I pretended to be a runaway. I knew the network had recently concentrated operations there. It was another place where they could abduct teenagers and it could believably explained away with the 'runaway' story.
They'd taken my carefully laid bait and I'd been taken after an elaborate plan. Somehow though, someone had figured out who I was. Hopefully, they only knew me as Rana. This was a concerning development but I could do nothing about it.
I continued through the train until I got to the dining car. It was locked. I searched the adjoining kitchen car for tools I could use to open the door. As I did so, I tried to use the phone but poor signal strength made this impossible.
Eventually, I was able to open the door. I found eight young women tied up the way I had been and I quickly worked to free them. They remained unconscious, however, drugged with the same cocktail I had been injected with.
The next car had three more. Eleven women in total were on this car, women who would be explained away to their families as runaways. While some possibly were, others were no doubt taken in the same way Ana was-abducted against their will and transported to a distant land for indoctrination.
My thoughts swirled again, remembering Ana and the evil people I had entrenched myself with because of what they'd done to her. I thought of those scratchy voices on the radio. When I got off of this thing, body parts were going rain across the criminal underworld. For now, I'd just have to be satisfied with some minor bloodletting.
I grabbed a whiteboard off the wall in the kitchen car and headed back to the engine room. With the attached marker I wrote my message and directed it in front of the camera:
"I have Marik Novak. Stop the train and you can have him."
I was confident my offer would be taken. Marik Novak was the gold-toothed man with the tattoo on his hand. He had advanced to a position of prominence in the organization before I took him. For more than four years, he has been my prisoner, hidden at one of my secret locations.
"Marik is dead," said the scratchy voice on the radio.
I cleaned off the whiteboard and wrote a message requesting they turn on the wi-fi so I could provide proof.
I could feel the train slow down slightly as I played with the features of the phone. I was eventually able to send a message to my brother who had contacts in Interpol to notify them of a train that would need to be aprehended.
Then I accessed my security cameras at my storage facility. I pointed the phone with my live feed showing a disfigured, naked man in the fetal position locked in a small cage. I zoomed in on the hand and showed the men behind the camera the identifying feature of Marik Novak.
I could hear audible gasps as I was given a phone number to call for further negotiations.
"How do I know you will release him?"
"You can get him now. I assume you have men in Daugavpils?"
Daugavpils was a satillite location for them but I knew they probably had a few men there. I told the man I was speaking to, who I assumed to be Marik's brother, Lazlo, that I could unlock the cage remotely once they got there and I would if the train stopped.
I could hear the resignation in Lazlo's voice, even through the scratchy radio.
"What have you done with him all these years?"
I could also hear disgust.
"Nothing worse than you do to all of these so-called runaways," I answered.
He replied slowly, no doubt trying to shock me. What he said did shake me to my core but I would never allow him to know that his words affected me.
"You know, Kady, we never took your sister, Ana. I do not know what happened to her but whatever did, we had nothing to do with it."
He'd called me by my name. He knew who I was.
I also knew he was lying. Marik had said the same to me when I caught him but I had already found my sister by then. I knew what had happened to her before she died. I knew everything that had happened at the Harvest Festival and afterward. I found it especially dispicable that they would continue to lie long after everything they had set in motion.
Mr. Lazlo Novak was experiencing the same epiphany I had once experienced, at least he thought so. He finally had an answer for what happened to his brother, but unlike me, he planned on seeing his twin brother again.
The train continued to slow down and I never took my eyes off the camera. I couldn't see them but I think I understood the hatred for me from whereever it was they were viewing it. Soon, the scratchy voice came over the radio.
"My men are in place. Release my brother."
I studied my security cameras from the phone and saw that three men were at the storage unit where I kept the man who looked liked Marik Novak. The man imprisioned there was a different monster, a lower level goon. I had tattooed him and even provided him with a gold tooth.
I would have never given up the actual Marik for such a small gain. One way or another I could have gotten the eleven off the train without this game. The only reason for this it that I suspected Lazlo was at the controls. I knew I could hurt him in the same way he hurt me.
On camera, I showed Lazlo that the cage was opened. I even unlocked the doors. His crew would enter my trap and find themselves unable to leave. Depending on how they tried to escape with the decoy of Marik, they could either unleash poisonous gas or an explosive. It would take them at least 15 minutes to do so, more than enough time for me to get everyone off the train.
Lazlo, would suffer another loss at my hand. It was one of many I had already dealt him. But today was special.
Lazlo was used to losses from rouge elements like myself, or even the police on occasion. He knew disappointment and anger. I'm sure he understood physical pain. One day I planned to put him through my thousand cuts of torture as I had for so many of the others and I would revel in it, as the monster I too had become.
Today, however, he would understand what I had gone through, in a small way. He was already a soulless monster so any wave of emotions would be subdued, as I rationalized it.
But one day, I would finally arrive to kill him. That day would happen as sure as I knew I was still alive and existing for only that purpose. I knew when that day came, one of his last thoughts would be remembering this day. And I was sure in doing so, if he had any regrets at all in his life at that moment he was have at least one more. Because on that day, he would understand that he was dying by a machine of his own creation.